The Game: You start the game by creating a character, Basic D&D style, who enters the world defenseless and just this side of naked. It’s your job to arm and armor your alter-ego, buy plenty of rations, and then set out to explore the world of Britannia, and the treacherous dungeons that lie beneath it. A visit to the castle of Lord British will give you a chance to level up for deeds accomplished, and receive an assignment from him for your next adventure. (California Pacific Computer, 1980)
Memories: Like so many amateur-programmed Apple II games at the dawn of the 1980s, Akalabeth was distributed via floppy disk in a plastic bag with modest documentation and packaging. So what makes it so special now? Simply put, Akalabeth was also the dawn of a gaming empire – or the origin of one. It was the first computer game programmed and released by Richard Garriott, an avid fan of paper-and-dice role playing games with medieval settings. Both the game and its creator would transform over time – the basic structure of Akalabeth became the basis of the early Ultima games, and Garriott of course became known as his alter ego, the benevolent ruler of the Ultima universe, Lord British.
Well, I say benevolent ruler, but here Lord British is asking you to demonstrate your fealty to the crown by going forth and killing…well…a rat. Really. That’s your first task. I guess in the old days of Britannia, before evil wizards and sorceresses brought darkness to the land and before the fall of Magincia, pest control was really the big issue of the day. (Of course, I kid here – it’s really funny in retrospect when one thinks of the later Ultima games’ virtues and loftier goals. It’s a good thing you don’t have to go into the dungeon to bring back a shrubbery…)
To characterize Akalabeth as primitive is a bit charitable; it’s a bare-bones game on its own, but in historical context, so much of what Ultima and its sequels would become is already there. A god’s-eye-view, top-down 2-D perspective shows you where you’re going above ground, and a wireframe version of Ultima‘s first-person dungeon crawl takes over when you descend into the depths. You don’t encounter any trouble until you hit the dungeons, and then look out. Towns are somewhat simplistic – they’re just places where you can buy provisions, weapons and armor, and then you go on your way. It’s almost like a tutorial for the early Ultimas.
One can poke fun at Akalabeth for its simplicity, but it’s all the more fascinating to look between the lines and see the root of so much of what was to come in the best computer RPG series of gaming’s golden age.